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Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis...
Posted By: General BattutaDate: 7/3/11 9:49 p.m.

The Weaponized Transhuman: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis, Bioshock, Warhammer, and the Future of Wetware (Us)

The Question

We love games where we put on armor that gives us superhuman abilities. We become transhuman.

What future is there for humanity when this kind of technology arrives? At what point we do we stop calling the shots? When the armor no longer needs us - what happens?

Introduction (SPOILERS ENSUE)

Halo is a narrative about the obsolescence of humans. Of course it is; it's a prettied-up, popularized version of Marathon, which in turn pays gleefully homicidal homage to the Culture books, a multi-volume rant about the question of what, exactly, humans can do when strong AI has blossomed on the scene and taken the reins of human affairs. (The Culture books are significantly more optimistic than Halo, which is in turn slightly more optimistic than Marathon.)

Almost every major event in the Halo universe is, directly or indirectly, instigated by an AI. Mendicant Bias defects to the Flood, seduced by a flood AI (CI, in Halo's vernacular, but really - what's a little substrate between friends?) Offensive Bias renders Forerunner crews obsolete at the battle of the Maginot Sphere. The Human-Covenant War is triggered by Mendicant, although credit must be given to the Prophet of Truth. Cortana drives her human weapons component, the Master Chief, up to the end of Halo 2, where she is separated from her instrument - after which she sends information home to Earth which her obedient puppet acts upon. On the Ark, at the climax of the war, the Chief carries out 343 Guilty Spark's original intent, activating Alpha Halo. Reach suggests the entire Human-Covenant war was guided by an AI cabal. And what little we've seen of Halo 4 opens with an AI awakening the Chief by declaring that she needs him.

There's very little for humans to do in the Haloverse except acts as puppets. This theme is cropping up more and more in SF, and for good reason: we are worried, as a civilization, about what the existence of postman intelligences might mean for our own agency.

But it's popping up in games as well. And there's a reason, unique to games, for this: game narratives do not allow much agency, which means the player must follow the dictates of a puppetmaster. It's simply easier for a developer to create a linear, or simple branching, story.

Bioshock made this point most acutely: the player moves down a linear series of events, confined to the game's narrative by the fact that nobody has programmed any branches - a conceit that is lampshaded within the narrative by the fact that the player character is brainwashed and has no free will! We almost never have free will in games, simply because it is impossible for a game to account for all player actions and present a branch for them. Even Roger Ebert has picked up on this: there is a fundamental tension between a linear narrative and player agency. Giving the player a puppetmaster who feeds him or her goals is a way to resolve this tension; the player's lack of choice is absolved because the player's avatar lacks choice.

Perhaps this is why the theme of AI puppetry works so well in games. (Even when no AIs are involved, an external force often coerces the player - witness the role of the federal agents in Red Dead Redemption.)

The theme of AI puppetry has an incestuous relationship with another trope of modern gaming: the posthuman warrior. He (almost universally he) is everywhere, present in nearly ever game franchise I listed in the title. Why? Let's take a look at the way the transhuman player avatar interfaces with free will and puppetry.

Here's my thesis: games about future, transhuman warriors like the Master Chief make an argument about the role of humans in future society. Are we going to be the drivers we are today, or will we ride in the backseat, chaffeured and guided by AI? Halo, I argue, is modestly cynical about the future of human agency. Crysis (specifically Crysis 2) presents a far more bleak outlook; Deus Ex is perhaps the most optimistic; and the satirically dark Warhammer 40K universe presents a view of the transhuman that refuses to engage its own questions, an intentionally dogmatic throwback which echoes the setting itself.

In each of these universes, technologically augmented humans fight to determine the fate of our species. In some, these humans are deciders and actors. In others, they're equipment, slaves to their machines. Let's look at each in turn, and see what they have to say about what will happen to humans once we start altering ourselves with technology.

Crysis 2

Crysis 2 was a flawed game, both in its play and its narrative. But of all the games listed here, it takes the most hard-nosed, mature look at the role of humans in the universe: it says that humans are basically unnecessary. To survive in the conflict Crysis presents, humans have to become obsolete - to surrender themselves to the machines they've created.

Crysis 2, as a narrative, is about the struggle between two systems: the virus the Ceph are engineering to wipe out humanity, and the Nanosuit that Jacob Hargreave has designed to engineer a cure. What is the role of a human being in this struggle? As a component. That's it. There is nothing for a human to do here except to serve as a component of a weapons system.

Alcatraz, the protagonist of Crysis 2, begins the game near death. By the end of the game he is dead. Whatever organism emerges from the rubble is a fusion of Alcatraz, Laurence 'Prophet' Barnes, and the Nanosuit itself. An argument can be made - in fact, it's the reason I consider the game an act of genius, and the ONLY reason so - that the player actually plays through Crysis 2 from the viewpoint of the nanosuit.

The Ceph are inexplicable aliens here to xenoform Earth. They have no apparent will or agenda beyond this; they are simple, mechanistic, and direct. In this they echo the scramblers of Peter Watts' phenomenally chilling novel Blindsight, which argues that consciousness is an evolutionary dead end and the universe is dominated by non-self-aware, evolving machine systems. The only weapon that can fight the Ceph is the Nanosuit, which samples Ceph tissue in order to create a counter-agent which will poison the Ceph using their own technology.

The suit needs a human inside, presumably to use his or her brain as a processor. It keeps that human alive because it needs the human component to function so it can complete its mission. When in Crysis 2 does the player make a single choice? When does Alcatraz exhibit a moment of agency? Never. Alcatraz carries out the mission programmed by Hargreave, as Prophet did before him (and the player, of course, carries out the mission programmed by Crytek, or quits - just as Alcatraz can fail and die). The narrative is utterly linear, the mission is utterly linear, and Alcatraz is essentially a dead man walking - meat in the suit, dead without its constant life support.

If the Nanosuit could operate without a human within it, it would. It is simply not yet advanced enough to do without a human component. That's all. Set Crysis 2 another ten years in the future and the Nanosuit might have accomplished its mission alone: a self-evolving AI system built by man battling a self-evolving system from another star. The humans in the conflict literally serve as raw material: for Ceph machinery, or as pilots for the Nanosuit. (It's telling that early design documents for the Nanosuit 2.0 gave it the ability to metabolize dead human flesh to regain energy - literally feeding off the species that created it.)

Crysis 2 is deeply skeptical about the need for humans in any kind of future conflict. Its transhuman systems exist in spite of humans, and use them as grudging components because they cannot yet be completely replaced by superior machines. It faces the consequences of human augmentation fully.

Warhammer 40K

Warhammer is a storied property, beloved of neckbeards everywhere. Affection for it ranges from the ironic acknowledgment of all its portentous silliness to the (rather farcical) belief that it's actually worth taking seriously. But there's no denying that 40K has its transhumans: the Space Marines. Dressed up in neo-Gothic, Roman splendor, sworn to the service of the Emperor of Man, they battle 'xenos', demons, and mutants, wearing power armor and augmented by a number of implants.

But they're essentially cartoons. The 40K universe is designed to be stagnant; technological progress has ceased, and the Space Marines exist through tradition and ritual. There is no consequence to their transhumanism. AI is ruthlessly suppressed, and a creed of human supremacy and purity is the order of the day. The Space Marines fight and die using technology they barely understand. The 40K universe is fundamentally reactionary - it came to the brink of rendering humans obsolescent, reeled back in horror, and ran in the other direction. Cybernetics and genetics are used only in extreme circumstances, to create warriors who can safeguard human purity.

It's ironic, then, that the 40K universe presents humans as just as much trapped in a system as Halo does. Surrounded by the demons of the Warp and ruthless alien threats, the machine of the Human Imperium has to keep ticking. Individual humans are irrelevant (excepting, of course, the Emperor, who feeds on the lives of thousands every day) - it's the system as a whole that must sustain itself. The Space Marines are as much cogs as Alcatraz in Crysis 2, simple components in a vast system, robbed of any free will or capacity for self-development. Alcatraz wasn't transhuman; the suit was. The Space Marines are components; it's the Imperium that has transcended human limitations, if only to keep its human cargo intact.

Warhammer presents a universe that reached the edge of becoming like Banks' Culture, but stumbled into nightmarish threats and veered off into reactionary stagnation - a stagnation necessary, the system believes, to preserve itself. Humans are components here too, not because technology has outpaced their control, but because they fear it will.

Deus Ex

If you haven't played Deus Ex, shame on you. One of the best-written game narratives ever produced, DX allows the player a startling amount of agency, allowing him or her to kill key characters at surprising moments. In the end, the title character - J. C. Denton - makes a choice about how to shape the future of human government. In this respect, Deus Ex is the most optimistic of the properties surveyed here. AI in Deus Ex requires human assistance to grow. J. C. Denton, the first true transhuman to achieve his full potential, makes a choice - based on his human beliefs and consciousness - about how the technology around him will shape the human future.

J.C. is a nano-augmented clone, purpose-built to serve as the catalyst in a plot to create a New World Order. Warring human conspiracies are battling over the destiny of human government. The Illuminati want to guide humanity to a gentle, limited future behind the scenes. Majestic 12 wants to unite humanity under the rule of a superhuman AI, Helios. And other elements - led by Hong Kong Triad member Tracer Tong - want to shatter technology's grip on mankind, reverting to a system of independent city-states free of any potential tyranny.

J. C. achieves his mission using his technological powers, but in the end, the choice is his. He decides which faction wins out. Helios lacks an understanding of mankind, and asks J.C. to merge with it to provide that human touch in government. J.C. can choose to reject technology entirely and cast the world back into a dark age, for a second chance at Eden. Unlike Crysis or 40K, transhuman augmentation gives the player character more of a choice, not less, and while AI assists Denton in his journey, the choice is ultimately still his. No matter humanity's destiny, it'll have human fingerprints on it.

J.C.'s conversation with the Morpheus proto-AI in the back rooms of Illuminati HQ is an absolutely brilliant piece of science fiction. Check it out.


It's why we're here, isn't it? As befits a descendant of Marathon, Halo is surprisingly cynical about the role of humans in the future. The SPARTANs are dehumanized, transhuman weapons systems. Before the Covenant they are government instruments. After the Covenant they are the only humans inhuman enough to make a difference in the war. Even then they're not enough.

Halo may seem to place the player at the center of agency, but Master Chief is a puppet - he carries out the orders of AIs, and occasionally of human superiors. If Cortana isn't leading him around, 343 is, or Mendicant Bias is pulling strings behind the scenes. The Chief's transhuman abilities are limited compared to those of Crysis or Deus Ex: in gameplay, he has recharging energy shields and good aim. That's it. He can't cloak (often), his suit can't resuscitate him once he's dead, and his abilities are fairly straightforward.

In a pivotal scene in Halo 3, Cortana claims that there's something about the Chief which is intrinsically special - luck. Some kind of heroic quality that sets him apart. But we never see evidence of this; it might almost be a blandishment. Without AI guidance, the Chief is quite literally lost; when he loses touch with Cortana, he agreeably does whatever 343 says, until Cortana yanks his collar and regains control of her self-propelled gun system. Even when the Chief makes his biggest decision, to return to the Ark and to hunt down the Index, he's following a trail of breadcrumbs Cortana left for him.

The one moment in the whole series that I can recall which violates this precept comes at the end of Halo 1, where Cortana - bafflingly - doesn't know what to do to destroy the Autumn. The Chief juggles a grenade; there's our answer. Personally, I think this is a bit of a cop-out - Durandal would've thought of that while the Security Officer was still in the pattern buffer, and there's really no excuse for Cortana failing to think it up. But it provides at least a hint that perhaps the Chief is more than a drone; he makes at least one contribution.

Do humans matter in Halo? The Chief, mostly, doesn't - he's a bomb, detonating where Cortana or another AI needs him. And on the broader scale, too, the war is fairly mechanistic; AIs operate at every level, and Reach suggest AIs are pulling sociopolitical strings behind the scenes. On the broader scene, the battle between Flood and Forerunner is one of intelligent systems that simply use biomass as components. In a way, that's as cynical as Crysis.

Conclusion and TL;DR

Crysis, Halo, Deus Ex, Warhammer - these properties ask what happens when man and machine mingle in order to fight wars. In Deus Ex, technology is a tool; in the end, human will drives the resolution. In Warhammer, humanity alters itself, but within strict limits - it's afraid to cross the brink. (There are machine intelligences in the Warhammer universe; they're not friendly.) In Crysis (echoing the terrifying Blindsight), humans are obsolete - war with an alien power requires human weakness to be removed from the equation.

Where does Halo fall? Closer to Crysis than anywhere else. People in Halo, people like the Chief, are weapons systems, guided by AIs. One might claim a partnership exists between Cortana and the Chief, but if so, it's a tense one, and one I'd call unrealistic.

In the long term, the agent driving that Mjolnir armor should be Cortana, not the Chief. I'm surprised it hasn't happened already - the meat is obsolete; something new has arrived on the scene. Our games present us with transhumans gilded in power armor, but it's the armor that's on the rise, and the human on the fall. (Crysis Legion, written by Peter Watts and almost - almost - more than a media SF tie-in, makes this point far better than Fall of Reach did.)


Message Index


Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis...General Battuta 7/3/11 9:49 p.m.
     aaaaaarghGeneral Battuta 7/3/11 9:50 p.m.
           Re: aaaaaarghHedgemony 7/3/11 11:47 p.m.
     Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.ZackDark 7/3/11 10:18 p.m.
           Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.General Battuta 7/3/11 10:25 p.m.
                 Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.davidfuchs 7/4/11 11:37 a.m.
                       "That's not what I meant to say!"Leisandir 7/4/11 1:34 p.m.
                       Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.General Battuta 7/4/11 11:36 p.m.
     Where my pretentiousness becomes unbearableDagoonite 7/4/11 1:52 a.m.
     Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.SonofMacPhisto 7/4/11 10:55 a.m.
           Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.General Battuta 7/4/11 11:39 p.m.
                 Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.SonofMacPhisto 7/5/11 12:36 p.m.
                       Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.Bry 7/5/11 12:51 p.m.
                             Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.SonofMacPhisto 7/5/11 1:06 p.m.
                                   Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.Quirel 7/6/11 12:37 a.m.
           Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.Bry 7/5/11 6:47 a.m.
                 Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.SonofMacPhisto 7/5/11 12:18 p.m.
     Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.yakaman 7/4/11 11:17 a.m.
           Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.Evador 7/5/11 11:17 a.m.
                 Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.yakaman 7/6/11 12:17 a.m.
                       Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.Evador 7/6/11 12:39 p.m.
     Interesting *Deus Ex 1 spoilers*Moorpheusl9 7/4/11 12:43 p.m.
     Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.Ynation913 7/4/11 6:04 p.m.
           Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.Leisandir 7/4/11 7:39 p.m.
                 Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.Ynation913 7/4/11 8:19 p.m.
                 Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.uberfoop 7/4/11 9:06 p.m.
     Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.General Vagueness 7/5/11 4:59 p.m.
     Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.Beckx 7/5/11 5:13 p.m.
           Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.General Battuta 7/5/11 10:27 p.m.
                 Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.General Battuta 7/5/11 10:27 p.m.
                 Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.Beckx 7/5/11 10:48 p.m.
                       Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.General Battuta 7/6/11 2:50 p.m.
                             Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.Beckx 7/7/11 2:09 p.m.
                                   Re: Weaponized Transhumans: Halo, Deus Ex, Crysis.General Battuta 10/7/11 11:18 p.m.

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